Today I had another conversation with someone who is about to lose his apartment in Oakland. He’s worried that soon he and his elderly father will be out on the street.
How can I help him? As a leader in the downtown community of Oakland, I have had the number of requests for help rise substantially since 2008. I can tell how the economy is going just by who comes to the door, and what they need. I can tell when someone is going to ask me for money as soon as they start to tell me their story.
I’ve never been there – although, like many women, I’ve feared that someday it could happen to me – so I don’t know what its like to ask for a hand-out. I don’t know what its like when all the safety nets have been cut open and there is nowhere to go. I don’t know what it’s like to know that tonight I’ll have to sleep in my car – if I’m lucky – or worse, on the street. I don’t know what it’s like to panhandle. I’m not in a position to judge the people who show up these days, asking for help.
And I won’t judge. I don’t know why I’m here and Hank is there, but that’s the way it is.
What I do want to say is: where is the help in our communities for those who need help, who need help desperately? Where do we send a mother and her son and daughter who need shelter when the only shelter that has an opening doesn’t take boys – even little boys? Where is the help for those who have given up completely because they’ve been wrung out by an already over-worked and over-burdened “system?”
“Hank” (not his real name) told me he needed to talk to me today. So I sat down with him, knowing that he was going to ask for money; I’m already giving money to people I know in my spiritual community who need help – desperately. Hank has lived in a lot of places. He’s well-educated and he had a professional job until a few months ago, when he was let go. Hank can do a lot of things, too. He told me some of his skills, and I wrote them down, along with his cell phone number, which might not be working after this week.
I asked Hank if he had a community of people who knew him. He didn’t understand the question! I told him that’s what a lot of people don’t know about “church” communities. Church communities are not about being nice and looking good so that no one can see your suffering… although that’s what most people think they are.
I’ve learned as a pastor in downtown Oakland for many years that a community of people who know you will do their best to help you when you need something. A community of people who know you will look out for you and tell you about where they know there is work – and oh yes, “use my name!” when you go there! A community of folks who know your name through loss and suffering and just holding on – will want to help you because they’ve been helped.
And how can I help Hank today? Here’s a guy who knows several languages, says he doesn’t do drugs, looks like a good enough guy, had a profession, and today he’s wondering how long he and his father will have a roof over their heads. We talked and it became clear to me that having something to eat right now would help Hank. If he could take some food home to his father, that would be good, too.
So we found some good, home-cooked food for him; he can take some home. It is what he needs for the moment, but it hasn’t helped him, really.
I’m not the only person in this country who has opened the door to someone today who has basic, unmet needs. The numbers of people like this are growing all the time. Why aren’t we hearing about the poor these days? What is to become of all of us when a good chunk of the folks who are part of the community – any community in this country – don’t have the resources they need to live? What is to become of us all when a lot of people we see every day are asking for what they need to just make it to tomorrow?
I don’t have the answers to the questions I’m asking. I’m frustrated when Hank asks me, a stranger, for something. Not only do I have to say I can’t help him with some money because I am using what I have to help someone else with basic needs but I don’t know where to send him to get the help he needs.
This is about us, not about them.